Joe and Rose Kennedy’s five daughters were not exempt from the competitive spirit and ambition that ran through the family. Although they were not, like their brothers, vessels through which their father channeled his ambitions, in their life choices they reflected the family interest in public service.
Rosemary, the eldest sister, was born with serious learning disabilities. As she matured and began to behave erratically, her father elected to have a lobotomy performed, thinking that she could be made happier. The operation left her in a worse state, requiring institutionalization for the rest of her life. Although debilitated, Rosemary proved to be an inspiration to her sisters.
Kathleen was similar in temperament to her brother Jack — charming, energetic and socially adept. Her bright personality attracted attention in London when she arrived with her father, the American ambassador. She defied her mother, marrying a Protestant Englishman — a Marquis, no less. Her husband died in the Second World War, however, and as a young widow of 28 Kathleen herself died in a plane crash over France.
Eunice Kennedy began a sports program for mentally disabled children than grew into the international Special Olympics. President Ronald Reagan recognized her work with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Sargent Shriver, her husband, had earned his own Medal of Freedom for his service as the first director of the Peace Corps.
Patricia Kennedy followed her father’s path through Hollywood and England, marrying the British actor Peter Lawford. John Kennedy socialized with Patricia and Lawford’s friends, like Frank Sinatra and the actress Marilyn Monroe. More recently, Patricia works for literacy programs.
Jean Ann Kennedy Smith founded Very Special Arts, an international cultural program for the mentally and physically disabled. President Bill Clinton appointed her American ambassador to Ireland from 1993 to 1998, and Jean served during a critical period of peace talks.
The Kennedy daughters-in-law also led productive public lives. Jacqueline Bouvier was a newspaper journalist and photographer, writing an “Inquiring Camera Girl” column, when she met her future husband, Senator John Kennedy. As First Lady, Jackie was instrumental in elevating the cultural life of the White House, finding and restoring historic presidential furniture, hosting concerts by Pablo Casals, Leonard Bernstein and others, and importing a French chef for the kitchen. Her language skills, intrepid attitude and impeccable taste won her admirers at home and abroad and she served as the perfect goodwill ambassador for the nation. After the president’s death, Jackie’s brother-in-law Robert Kennedy cared for her family. Following his death, Jackie married the Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis. From 1978 until her death in 1994, she worked as an editor for New York publishing companies.
Ethel Skakel met her classmate Jean Kennedy’s brother Robert when she was only 17. She was married at 22 and bore eleven children. After her husband’s murder, she founded the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial, a non-profit charity dedicated to promoting Robert Kennedy’s vision of helping the disadvantaged through awards for human rights, community-based empowerment and compassion for the impoverished.
Virginia Joan Bennett was married to Edward Kennedy from 1958 to 1984. She had neither the strength of character of Jackie, who refused to be swept into the maelstrom of Kennedy competition, nor the drive of Ethel, who came from a family similar to the Kennedys. In her defense, she was not married to a successful president, nor to a saintly, devoted martyr. Without fitting in or rising above, Joan sank into alcoholism.
Victoria Reggie Kennedy, Edward’s second wife, advocates gun control through the board of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence and as a founder of Common Sense about Kids and Guns.